Women make up roughly 38% of the global workforce, yet they constitute only 10–20% of the engineering workforce. In the U.S., numbers suggest that 40% of women who graduate with engineering degrees never enter the profession or eventually leave it. Why? The reasons vary but primarily involve socio-economic constraints on women in general, workplace inequities, and lack of support for work-life balance. Sadly, history itself has often failed to properly acknowledge the instrumental contributions of women inventors, scientists, and mathematicians who have helped solve some of our world's toughest challenges. How can young women emulate their successes if they don't even know about them?
On this International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), we'd like to take the opportunity to celebrate several remarkable women who not only overcame insurmountable challenges to share their exceptional talents but also actively developed some of the most important technologies of humankind. We hope their stories will inspire young women to pursue engineering studies and encourage women engineers to remain in the profession. The world needs you!
Starting off our list is a woman who is particularly near and dear to our hearts here at AdaCore, Lady Ada Lovelace. Enjoy!
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Lady Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer and is considered the world's first programmer. A woman of many talents, she demonstrated a particular leaning towards mathematics and science early on. Such challenging subjects were not standard fare for women at the time. Still, throughout her childhood she received instruction from private tutors and family friends, including Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer and mathematician who became one of the first women to be admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society, and Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor. Through Babbage, Lovelace began studying advanced mathematics with University of London professor Augustus de Morgan. Lovelace wrote the first algorithm used by Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, a computing machine designed to perform complex mathematical calculations. In 1843, she translated an article on Babbage's analytical engine written by an Italian engineer, Luigi Menabrea. In addition to the translation, Lovelace added extensive notes of her own, including visionary statements that expressed the potential for computers beyond mathematics, leading others to deem her a 'prophet of the computer age.' Lovelace's contributions to the field of computer science were not acknowledged until her notes were reintroduced to the world by B.V. Bowden, who republished them in Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines in 1953. Since then, Ada has received many posthumous honors for her work. In 1980, The U.S. Department of Defense named a newly developed computer programming language, "Ada," after Lovelace. The Ada language continues to be used to create reliable, safe, and secure software.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992)
Grace Hopper was a computer scientist, programmer, and a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. She earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University and was a professor of mathematics at Vassar College. Hopper began her computing career in 1944 as a member of the Harvard Mark I team to develop one of the first computers made for commercial use in the United States. In 1949, she joined the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation, where she was part of the team that developed the UNIVAC I - a commercial data-processing computer designed to replace punched-card accounting machines of the day. She also managed the development of the first COBOL compiler and the COBOL language that is still in use today. Hopper served in the Navy Reserves from 1943 to 1966, but she was recalled to active duty the following year to help standardize the Navy's computer languages. When she retired again in1986, at the age of 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the United States Navy. After she retired from the Navy, she worked as a consultant for Digital Equipment Corporation, sharing her computing experience until her death at age 85. Hopper was elected a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1962, named the first computer science Woman of the Year by the Data Processing Management Association in 1969, received the National Medal of Technology in 1991, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 (posthumously).
Joan Clarke (1917-1996)
Joan Clarke was a cryptanalyst and numismatist and is known as one of the greatest code-breakers in history. In 1940, while attending Cambridge University, Joan was recruited to join Alan Turing's Hut 8 team at Bletchley Park, best known for breaking the Nazi's Enigma Code and helping end World War II. She was initially placed in an all-women group, referred to as "The Girls," who mainly did routine clerical work. She quickly became the only female practitioner of Banburismus (the cryptanalytic process developed by Alan Turing to decipher German encrypted messages) and deputy head of Hut 8 in 1944. Clarke's work won her many awards and citations, including an appointment as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1946. After the War, Clarke worked for Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Clarke also developed an interest in numismatics history. She established the sequence of the complex series of gold unicorn and heavy groat coins that were in circulation in Scotland during the reigns of James III and James IV. In 1986, Her research was recognized by the British Numismatic Society when she received the Sanford Saltus Gold Medal. Issue No. 405 of the Numismatic Circular described her paper on the topic as "magisterial." Keira Knightley portrayed Clarke in the film The Imitation Game (2014).
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)
Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician and the first African-American woman to work as a NASA scientist. Her calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent American-crewed spaceflights. Johnson's work included calculating trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for Project Mercury space flights, including those for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit. Her calculations helped synch Project Apollo's Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS, later renamed Landsat), authored or co-authored 26 research reports, and worked on plans for a mission to Mars. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at Langley. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. In 2016, she was presented with the Silver Snoopy Award by NASA astronaut Leland D. Melvin and a NASA Group Achievement Award. She was portrayed as a lead character in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. In 2019, Johnson was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress, and in 2021, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Frances V. Spence (1922 - 2012)
Frances V. Spence is considered one of the first computer programmers in history. Spence was one of eighty women programmers originally hired by the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering to develop the ENIAC project - a classified U.S. Army project designed to construct the first all-electronic digital computer to compute ballistics trajectories during World War 2. In addition to her larger programming duties, Spence was also assigned to a smaller computational development team of six women programmers (called "Computers") to operate an analog computing machine known as a Differential Analyzer, used to calculate ballistics equations. When the War ended, Spence continued working with the ENIAC team and collaborated with other leading mathematicians. In 1997, Spence and the other original ENIAC programmers were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. Their work paved the way for the electronic computers of the future, and their innovation kick-started the rise of electronic computing and computer programming in the Post-World War II era.
Annie J. Easley (1933-2011)
Annie J. Easley was an American computer scientist, mathematician, rocket scientist, and one of the first African-Americans to work as a computer scientist at NASA. Easley began her career doing computations for researchers, analyzing problems, and doing calculations by hand. Her earliest work involved running simulations for the newly planned Plum Brook Reactor Facility. She became an adept computer programmer, using languages like the Formula Translating System (Fortran) and the Symbolic Optimal Assembly Programming (SOAP) to support several of NASA's programs. She developed and implemented code used in researching energy-conversion systems by analyzing alternative power technology, including the battery technology for early hybrid vehicles and the Centaur upper-stage rocket. Later in her career, she became NASA's equal employment opportunity (EEO) counselor. In this role, she helped supervisors address gender, race, and age issues in discrimination complaints at the lowest level and in the most cooperative way possible. Easley retired from NASA in 1989, but she remained an active participant in the Speaker's Bureau and the Business & Professional Women's association. She has inspired many through her enthusiastic participation in outreach programs, breaking down barriers for women and people of color in STEM.
Margaret Hamilton (born 1936)
Margaret Hamilton is an American computer scientist, systems engineer, and business owner. She was director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for NASA's Apollo program, which successfully landed the first humans on the Moon. On July 20, 1969, as the lunar module, Eagle, approached the Moon's surface, its computers began flashing warning messages. Fortunately, the software developed by Hamilton and her team was not only informing everyone that there was a hardware-related problem, but the software was compensating for it. And with only enough fuel for 30 more seconds of flight, Neil Armstrong reported, "The Eagle has landed." The achievement was a monumental task, given that computer technology was still in its infancy. The astronauts had access to only 72 kilobytes of computer memory (a 64-gigabyte cell phone today carries almost a million times more storage space), and programmers had to use paper punch cards to feed information into room-sized computers with no screen interface. Hamilton's work guided the remaining Apollo missions that landed on the Moon and benefitted Skylab, the first U.S. space station. In 1972, Hamilton left MIT and started her own company, Higher Order Software. Fourteen years later, she launched another company, Hamilton Technologies, Inc., where she created the Universal Systems Language to make the process of designing systems more dependable. Hamilton has published more than 130 papers, proceedings, and reports about sixty projects and six major programs. She is one of the people credited with coining the term "software engineering." NASA honored Hamilton with the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003. And in 2016, Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama for her work leading to the development of on-board flight software for NASA's Apollo Moon missions.
Sally K. Ride (1951-2012)
Dr. Sally K. Ride was an American astronaut and physicist and the first American woman to travel into space. On June 18, 1983, she served as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger. She also became the first American woman to travel to space a second time when she participated in another Challenger mission on Oct. 5, 1984. Ride served on the accident investigation boards set up in response to the two space shuttle tragedies (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003). And in 2009, she participated in the Augustine committee that helped define NASA's spaceflight goals. Ride stopped working for NASA in 1987 and joined Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control. She later became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. She also served as president of Space.com from 1999 to 2000. Until her death in 2012, Ride was a champion for science education and a role model for women, and especially girls. She wrote books for students and teachers and worked with science programs and festivals around the United States. She also came up with the idea for NASA's EarthKAM project, which lets middle school students take pictures of Earth using a camera on the International Space Station. In 2003, Ride was added to the Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Mae Jemison (born 1956)
Mae Carol Jemison is an American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. Jemison graduated from Stanford University in 1977 (one of the only African American students in her class) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts degree in African and African-American studies. She later attended Cornell and received her Doctorate in Medicine in 1981. Shortly after her graduation, she became an intern at the Los Angeles County Medical Center and then practiced general medicine. Fluent in Russian, Japanese, and Swahili, Jemison joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and served as a medical officer for two years in Africa. After working with the Peace Corps, Jemison opened a private practice as a doctor. However, once Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983, Jemison decided to apply to the astronaut program at NASA. In 1987 she was one of 15 people chosen out of over 2,000 applications for NASA's Astronaut Group 12, the first group selected after the Challenger explosion. When she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, she became the first African-American woman to travel into space. Jemison left NASA in 1993 and founded The Jemison Group, a technology research company that encourages science, technology, and social change. She also began teaching environmental studies at Dartmouth College and directed the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries. She later formed a non-profit educational foundation and, through the foundation, became the principal of the 100 Year Starship project funded by DARPA. Jemison has written several books for children and appeared on television several times, including in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She has received multiple awards and honorary doctorates and serves on the Board of Directors for many organizations. She has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. National Medical Association Hall of Fame, the Texas Science Hall of Fame, and the International Space Hall of Fame.
Donna Auguste (born 1958)
Donna Auguste is an African-American engineer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Auguste received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS) from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Science from Regis University, and was the first African-American woman to enter the doctoral program in computer science at Carnegie Mellon. Early in her career, Auguste worked at Xerox and was part of the engineering team at IntelliCorp that introduced some of the world's first commercial artificial intelligence knowledge. She also spent several years at Apple Computer. She was awarded four patents for her innovative engineering work on the Apple Newton Personal Digital Assistant, a forerunner to the Palm Pilot. After receiving her Ph.D., she became the founder and CEO of Auguste Research Group, LLC, involved in research around sensors and actionable data science for IoT. In 1996 she founded Freshwater Software, Inc. to provide companies with tools that would help them monitor and enhance their presence on the Internet. She served as CEO of Freshwater until she sold it in 2000 for $147 million. August also founded the Leave a Little Room Foundation, LLC - a philanthropic organization that helps provide housing, electricity, vaccinations, and improve education and infrastructure to poor communities worldwide. Her current research, DataTip, involves using smartphone sensors to engage non-technical youth and adults in STEM learning to create content relevant to daily living. She was recognized as one of "25 Women Who Are Making It Big in Small Business" by Fortune Magazine. She also won the 2001 Golden Torch Award for Outstanding Women in Technology.
Limor Fried (born 1980)
Fried is an American electrical engineer and businesswoman. Fried studied at MIT, earning a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) in 2003 and a Master of Engineering in EECS in 2005. From her dorm room, she created Adafruit Industries (@adafruti). The company designs and resells open-source electronic kits, components, and tools, mainly for the hobbyist market. Adafruit currently ranks #11 of the top 20 USA manufacturing companies and #1 of "fastest-growing private companies in New York City" by Inc. 5000. Fried has been influential in the open-source hardware community. She participated in the first Open Source Hardware Summit and drafted the Open Source Hardware definition. In 2009, she received the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for her participation. Fried's numerous accolades continue. She was awarded the Most Influential Women in Technology award in 2011 by Fast Company magazine and became the first female engineer featured on the cover of Wired magazine. In 2012 she was the only female on a list of 15 finalists for entrepreneur's "Entrepreneur of the Year" award. She was named a White House Champion of Change in 2016, became one of Forbes' America's Top 50 Women In Tech in 2018, and received a Women in Open Source Award (Community) by Red Hat in 2019. Known by her moniker ladyada, a homage to Lady Ada Lovelace, she continues to motivate countless girls, young women, and others toward DIY frontiers and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
If you'd like to learn about more amazing women, check out INWED's article highlighting five women leaders who have made a considerable impact in the tech world and serve as an inspiration to many.